12 Christmas Towns and Santa's Villages That Absolutely Sparkle
Do you love the holidays? A trip to a nearby Santa's Village or a stay in one of the country's top Christmas towns that goes equally gaga for December 25 can be a great way to share that festive spirit with the whole family.
Some of the most festive Christmas villages are right here in the US. These local spots go all out for Christmas with mega holiday lights displays, Christmas markets, special performances, and plenty of opportunities to meet with Santa Claus. And while some of these celebrations look a little different this year, there are plenty of safe ways to celebrate the holiday season in (grand) style!
Read on for some of our favorite Christmas towns for those looking to get into the holiday spirit in a big way, from New York City to Williamsburg, Virginia, and Riverside, California to Koziar's Christmas Village in Pennsylvania. Find even more holiday (and winter) vacation ideas in our Family Travel Guide.
If you are traveling outside of your state or local area, check if COVID cases are on the rise in the area, as well as any travel restrictions, advisories, or quarantine orders.
The Rockefeller tree is one of NYC's most famous holiday sights, but there are many more! Photo by Julienne Schaer for NYCGo
New York City is always one of the best places to visit for the holidays, even this crazy year. It's lit up in all manner of lights for the season. In Midtown, the city’s iconic tree towers over the skating rink at Rockefeller Center (yes, it's open!), while the decorated St. Patrick’s Cathedral is just across the street, along with the fantastic holiday store windows all decked out in fantastical designs. In Bryant Park, another tree and ice rink are flanked by a charming shopping village. This year, Macy's beloved Santaland has been turned into a fully virtual experience, and most Nutcracker performances have also moved online. But there are still loads of festive things to safely do in person, such as Holiday Lights at the Bronx Zoo and the annual Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden. To experience a full explosion of Christmas spirit, take the R or D train out to Brooklyn's Dyker Heights neighborhood, which has become an international destination as residents try to outdo each other with over-the-top light displays on their homes. NYC is essentially several Christmas towns rolled into one major holiday destination.
Check out our list of the 12 Must-Do Holiday and Christmas Events in NYC.
2. Walt Disney World — Orlando, Florida
Disney’s version of Christmas is as grand as ever. Cinderella’s castle is decked out in a snow-like blanket of white lights, an international smorgasbord of holiday traditions abound at Epcot, and the special effects of falling snow blanket Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Fireworks, live entertainment, parades, and rides make this Florida getaway one of the best Christmas towns in the U.S. Explore more of Orlando for Nutcracker shows, more holidays lights, and seasonal festivals.
The historic city of Philadelphia offers lights, ice skating at Blue Cross RiverRink Winterfest, Santa sightings, and an authentic Christmas market. Photo courtesy of Blue Cross RiverRink
Philly is abuzz with family festivities in December, making it one of the best places to go for Christmas. Check out Dilworth Park’s ice rink, carousel, light show, and the city’s official tree (the lighting ceremony is virtual this year, but the tree is gorgeous and can be visited for an in-person viewing any evening). Franklin Square has a free outdoor light show, holiday fare, beverages (of the adult and kid-friendly variety), and Santa Saturdays. For an authentic German Christmas market, visit Christmas Village Philadelphia in LOVE Park. The Blue Cross RiverRink Winterfest opens for the season on November 27 and families can do a mystery walk looking for Elf on the Stealth, see reindeer at Bucks County Gardens, and have a holiday Bricktacular Lego build. Little Elmo fans can even see Santa, Rudolph, and the whole Sesame Street gang at Sesame Place. Who needs the Grinch when there's a Grouch?
4. Old Sturbridge Village — Sturbridge, Massachusetts
Old Sturbridge Village is New England's largest outdoor living history museum, depicting a rural New England town in the 1830s. While a day trip here is fun year-round, the holidays are when it becomes magical. Every December the village is filled with holiday decor and merriment, with "Christmas by Candlelight" evenings featuring storytelling, sleigh rides, and musical performances (the format has been updated this year to focus more on outdoor and socially distant celebrations). Kids can learn the history of Christmas traditions, like knitting stockings, wreath making, and making natural ornaments. Watch the period re-enactors make a traditional Christmas meal, punch tin lanterns, and make ice skates or a sled. Stroll through the village and over the Wishing Bridge, and end the evening with a horse-drawn carryall ride and warming up by the bonfires.
RELATED: 30 Elf on the Shelf Ideas for 2020
Koziar's Village in Pennsylvania is a magical display of classic Christmas lights. Photo courtesy the village
5. Koziar’s Christmas Village — Bernville, Pennsylvania
What simply started as a man decorating his house for the holidays has spiraled into one of the most magical Christmas villages over the past 71 years. Known for its impressive lights and decorations, the country estate also features a toy shop, old-time bakery, Santa visits, and more. After paying a modest admissions fee, families can walk or stroller the paths around this old farmhouse to take in all the good-natured Christmas kitsch. Warm up with a chocolate chip cookie and a cup of cider. Koziar's Christmas Village is a pretty perfect holiday day trip for those living in the area, or for anyone visiting one of Pennsylvania's top spots. As the traffic (and crowds) can pile up at certain times, this year Koziar's has instituted special "Prime Nights" where you must purchase timed entry passes. Social distancing rules, plenty of hand sanitizing stations, and the requirement that all guests wear masks are additional measures to make sure families can safely enjoy this holiday tradition.
Theme parks like Busch Gardens in Virginia practically glow during the holidays.
Take in the charm of an old-fashioned Christmas with a family getaway to Colonial Williamsburg. Safety measures are in place, but all festivities are currently scheduled, including shows, workshops, music, tours, and the newest tradition—the Lighting of the Cressets. On December 5, 12, and 19, catch the Grand Illumination, a fireworks show that includes firing guns and musical performances, in a safely socially distant setting this year. Visit the nearby Busch Gardens Christmas Town to extend the festivities at an all-new (limited-capacity) winter wonderland. This year families can celebrate the season with new entertainment, fifteen coasters and rides, a Gingerbread Scavenger Hunt, sweet treats, and meeting Santa in his Workshop.
7. The Mission Inn — Riverside, California
This is the lights display that USA Today calls the “Best Holiday Lights Display in the Nation.” The Mission Inn began as a small adobe boarding house in 1876, and grew into its present castle setting with a legendary holiday lighting display. The lights drape every available exterior surface and wind into the lobby. With restricted access due to the pandemic, the only way to see all the indoor lights is with an overnight stay, making this a great weekend getaway. With enormous Nutcracker soldiers guarding the entrance, a life-size gingerbread house, Dickensian robots, light-up Cinderella carriage rides, and more, this is an experience that dazzles like Disneyland, but at a far more relaxing pace. Don’t forget to end your evening with Casey’s Cupcakes, which became nationally famous when Casey won Cupcake Wars. The lights are on Nov 27, 2020 through Jan 6, 2021.
Read our detailed review of a visit to Riverside's Legendary Holiday Lights Display.
Santa rides into Branson's Silver Dollar City for a magical Christmas. Photo courtesy of Branson's Convention and Visitor Center
8. Silver Dollar City — Branson, Missouri
Missouri might not seem like a vacation destination in December, but the whole family can get excited about heading to Silver Dollar City. In addition to repeatedly being named one of the top amusement parks in the nation, this 1880s theme park rocks the holidays. Its seasonal "Old Time Christmas" has more has more activities (safely socially distanced, with limited attendance capacity) than ever, with a nightly parade of lights, a holiday sing-along steam train, and loads of holiday entertainment, including over 30 shows. The whole park is bedecked in millions of holiday lights turning it into a Christmas wonderland everywhere you look, and the 80-ft Christmas tree, dazzling with dancing lights, towers over everything. The park offers loads of discounts for evening visits, multiple-day tickets, military members, and more, so be sure to check the website before visiting.
Peddler's Village PA is a winter wonderland under a million lights!
9. Peddler's Village — New Hope, Pennsylvania
There's a reason Pennsylvania towns and attractions appear three times on our list of top Christmas villages! The country's historic roots, from Philadelphia to Pennsylvania Dutch country, lends itself to going big at Christmas, including at Peddler's Village. This year-round indoor and outdoor marketplace in New Hope, Pennsylvania, turns itself into a classic Christmas market as the calendar flips from Halloween to Holidays. While the "Grand Illumination" is cancelled this year, millions of holiday lights are already twinkling throughout the village, kids can meet Santa at a safe distance, ride a 1920's carousel, and marvel at the magnificent display of gingerbread houses. You can even catch a Christmas train ride in New Hope and in neighboring towns. Stay a long weekend to soak up all the things to do in Bucks County.
Enjoy a snowy Texas holiday at the Santa's Wonderland attraction filled with kid activities. Photo courtesy of Santa's Wonderland
10. Santa’s Wonderland — College Station, Texas
If you’re looking for snow in Texas, you’ll find it here. There’s a nightly snowfall, a snow playground, and snow tubing. Take a horse and carriage or hayride to view an impressive light display. Afterward, visit Santa, sit by a fire pit (hot dogs and s'mores are available for purchase to roast), and enjoy live music. Other attractions include a trackless train ride, pony rides, a petting zoo, a Texas-sized gingerbread village, outdoor holiday movies, a mechanical bull, and a life-sized snow globe. Plus, there are all-new attractions for 2020: a Walkable Trail of Lights, live Nativity Scene, Christmas Clydesdales, a Cowboy Christmas Corral, Frostbite's Toboggan Chute, and even a giant new outdoor ice skating rink. Plenty of shopping and food are also available, and it makes for a lovely day trip from the Houston area.
Come visit Santa in his North Pole Cabin where the fire is always warm and the memories last a lifetime! Photo Courtesy of Skypark at Santa's Village
11. Skypark at Santa's Village — Lake Arrowhead, California
Although it's open year-round, this LA-area Santa's Village has what one of our writers declared to be "the best Santa ever." Set up as a winter wonderland set in the San Bernardino forest, Skypark at Santa's Village offers non-holiday outdoor adventures, such as a bike park, bouldering, a zip line, shows, and playground. But from mid-November through January 10, 2021, Santa and his elves put on a special "nostalgic Christmas" at this Santa's Village, complete with one-on-one wish taking (reservations are necessary, due to reduced capacity this year), breakfast with Santa, ice skating, cookie decorating, a holiday lights display, train ride, mining for Santa's missing "good luck" gold coins, and more. Don't forget to explore Santa's Workshop and maybe even mail an extra letter to the jolly guy!
Cupcake greets visitors with holiday cheer at the Salamander Resort and Spa. Photo courtesy of the resort
12. Middleburg, Virginia
A trip to Middleburg feels like A Christmas Carol come to life. Middleburg’s historic downtown is dotted with antique street lamps and twinkling lights, and Federal-style buildings are decked with antique wooden Christmas ornaments. While the famous holiday parade is taking a holiday this year, it’s being replaced by a more interactive (and socially distant) set of family-focused events like a scavenger hunt, carriage rides, and more. If you need a Christmas tree (and even if you don’t) a visit to the ridiculously picturasque Snickers Gap Tree Farm is in order, and if you can’t bring yourself to leave, the Salamander Resort is a festive place to spend the night. If your kids love animals, definitely don’t skip a trip to the nearby Leesburg Animal Park. For parents who could use a little holiday gift to themselves, many of the local vineyards have reopened for tastings (50 West Vineyards is particularly welcoming to families with children, as long as they stay in arm’s reach).
An earlier version of this article first published in 2018.